Q: My son is going through a divorce and has moved back in with us. (My husband and I are retired.) His kids, ages 2 and 5, are with us half the time. I find myself disagreeing with some of his parenting choices, particularly around food. He cannot say no to the 2-year-old, so she may have ice cream before dinner or an ice pop for breakfast. She’ll often ask for something and take only a bite, so there is a lot of food waste.
She also uses a whiny voice and throws tantrums to get her way, and her dad always gives in. It’s increasingly difficult for me to hold my tongue. Any advice?
A: It is quite kind of you to take in your son and grandchildren. You have raised your children; that part of your parenting journey is behind you, so to be thrust back in is no small thing.
Something critical to remember is that, I am guessing, you had primary say around raising your children. You made the choices and the mistakes, and you learned your lessons, which is really the only way we get better at parenting. We move ahead with our best guesses and learn as we go. That’s why parenting children under 7 can be so brutal: It’s nonstop learning.
Your son is in this huge (and probably painful) transition. Not only is his marriage over, but he also needs to learn how to be a single parent to young children while living with his parents again. It’s a lot for someone to deal with. That freedom to do everything “his way” is changed by the fact that he is again a son under your roof. There are many identities and roles at play here, and it can get confusing to know what and where your lane is.
I can feel your grandparenting (and parenting) frustration loud and clear. Many of us have been in situations where we want to yell, “Just say no to the darn kid!” But we don’t, because we know it could embarrass and undermine the parent, make a bad situation worse, divide loyalties or start a heated disagreement in front of the children. Holding this frustration in is you staying mature. And trust me: Many parents can (and do) lament how their own parents nagged, lectured and shamed their parenting choices. It really is a relationship killer, so good on you for holding your tongue.
Is there a middle ground between simmering and staying silent or lecturing your son? Because he doesn’t have the kids half the time, maybe you could take him out to dinner and just listen to him. Let him vent about the divorce or single parenting or whatever is on his mind. I could be wrong, but I bet he knows that the ice pops, wasted food and whining aren’t great, but he could be too overwhelmed to see it clearly or know what to do about it. By offering a compassionate, nonjudgmental ear, you free your son to put down his burdens for a bit, and when people do that, they are more likely to find the courage to do something different.
If the food waste is a problem financially, you could say: “Justin, I know Kaley is 2, and trying to feed a 2-year-old can be like herding cats, and we are spending lots of money on food that is getting thrown out. Is there a way she can eat and we can cut down on waste? Can we give her half of the food?” See what your son says. It may not have occurred to him that a lot of food is getting wasted, and he may have ideas regarding how to cut down.
As for the whining, your mantra is: The only person I can control is myself. This is your North Star. How you handle your granddaughter’s whining is your own work, and I would get comfortable with making yourself scarce during these rough hours. Go for a walk with a friend, go to another floor or put on some headphones. Do anything to make yourself feel less provoked.
Some people may read this and feel affronted: “It is their house, and the grandparent needs to hide?” Well, yes and no. I am suggesting that judging, critiquing and losing your cool in the moment are not going to work out well for any relationship in the house. Instead, stay out of it (in the moment), and find another way to support your son. You can keep your boundaries, just don’t do it during the tantrum or while eating. Good luck!
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